Were it not for the play of our own imaginations and our enjoyment of the fanciful excursions of others, we'd be limited to the world within reach of immediate time and space. Fortunately, worldwide, talented individuals create memorable films transporting us to fresh insights and breathtaking experiences. Politically sophisticated, personally confrontational and highly engrossing, each lingers in the head and heart for days, weeks, months.
1. Saving Private Ryan: Using "the good war," Steven Spielberg mounts a gut-wrenching D-Day invasion, terrifying testimony to combat horrors. Sure, he gets schematic and preachy, but he also delivers a moral imperative by way of a haunting series of events.
2. Mrs. Dalloway: With Eileen Atkins' screenplay and a luminous Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Dalloway, Dutch director Marleen Gorris suggests exquisite emotional conflict: regret, rationalization, joy and sadness, all woven into a story of nightmarish World War I flashbacks. Mrs. Dalloway provides a transcendent immersion in Virginia Woolf's novel.
3. and 4. Affliction and The Butcher Boy: These are two of the most honest, scathing depictions of the effects of alcoholism. In Affliction (based on Russell Banks' novel), father James Coburn and son Nick Nolte expose the brutally debilitating emotional and physical abuse that alcoholics visit upon their families and the innumerable ways they destroy their own lives. Similarly, The Butcher Boy follows a resourceful 12-year-old boy (a phenomenal Eamonn Owens) struggling desperately to cope but snapping. Both films interweave multiple subplots, achieving three-dimensional portraits.
5. and 6. Central Station and Eternity and a Day: In director Walter Salles' metaphor for Brazilian history, Dora (a superb Fernanda Montenegro) rescues and accompanies 9-year-old Josue in his search for his father. Moving from cynicism to compassion, she finds her own salvation in the process. Similarly, in Theo Angelopoulos' Eternity and a Day, a despondent man (Bruno Ganz), near death, battles memories and befriends an illegal Albanian immigrant boy. Aesthetically charged compositions present a minimalist, mesmerizing narrative (1998 Cannes Palme d'Or winner).
7. The General: Director John Boorman's gorgeous widescreen black-and-white chronicle of infamous Irish criminal Martin Cahill. This delicate balance of understanding and condemnation soars through Brendan Gleeson's performance (Best Actor at Cannes).
8. Life Is Beautiful: Daring to mock the Nazis' incomprehensible inhumanity and thereby to repel its emotional conquest, Italian writer/director/star Roberto Benigni segues from slapstick to precarious ridicule. Sent to a concentration camp, his character triumphs through an unbowed spirit.
9. Men with Guns: Fiercely independent writer/director John Sayles sends a widowed doctor (Federico Luppi) on an archetypal quest into the countryside, where he confronts the realities of army-vs.-guerilla warfare. In an unnamed Latin American country, the peasants are caught in the middle and the doctor's willful ignorance surrenders to tragic truths in this unhurried, mythic tale.
10. The Celebration: Danish director Thomas Vinterberg watches a family, reunited for the patriarch's 60th birthday, confront incest, suicide, adultery and, above all, denial. This exuberant, unconventional experiment features wild handheld camerawork, natural lighting and sound, on-location shooting and bold performances.
11. The Truman Show: Director Peter Weir makes one of the most playful but stinging indictments of life for, by and of television. Touching on similar themes, Pleasantville was, well, pleasant and nostalgic, but Truman denigrated and mocked our own media-driven mentality.
12. Shakespeare in Love: This wonderfully written Elizabethan romp fancifully and cleverly connects Shakespeare's loves, writer's block and artistic invention. Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes shine.
13. Happiness: This unique, uneven and at times unpleasant look at sensitive sexual issues is sometimes too glib; nevertheless, Todd Solondz's film is a remarkably striking consideration of desperation, loneliness and perversion.
14. Japanese cinema: Legendary director Shohei Imamura's The Eel, Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks and Sabu's Postman Blues testify to the vigor of contemporary Japanese cinema. Each expertly combines subtle suggestion and careful candor, comedy and pathos in unique, appealing ways.
15. Iranian cinema: Another national cinema well worth watching. More minimalist than American films, slowly (yes, sometimes maddeningly slowly) paced, the simplicity is as profound as it is refreshing. Examples include Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (the 1997 Cannes Palme d'Or winner) and Sohrab Shahid-Sales' Still Life (both included in Webster University's Iranian film festival), Mohammad-Ali Talebi's Bag of Rice (St. Louis International Film Festival) and Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple (Cannes and Telluride).
Re-releases: Truth be told, some of the best films this year were re-releases: Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria and Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Kudos also to art direction, costumes and Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth; Jane Horrocks in Little Voice; the quirky, delightful Waking Ned Devine, set in a lovely Irish village (actually shot on the Isle of Man); and The Castle, a hilarious Australian film.
Worth applause: James Ivory's touching and honest A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, John Waters' winsome Pecker, Chris Eyre's Smoke Signals and Carlos Saura's ravishing Tango.
Great documentaries include Exile in Sarajevo, The Saltmen of Tibet, Colors Straight Up and Chile: Obstinate Memory.
It's been a great year for film.
In one of the early scenes of The Stupids, John Landis' rather silly adaptation of a popular series of children's books released almost unnoticed in 1996, Stanley Stupid (Tom Arnold), the patriarch of a family with a severe case of common-sense deficiency, walks out of his house and checks his list of "things to do today."
"'One: Make check mark on paper,'" he reads, and does so.
"'Cross item out,'" he continues. "No time for that, I'm afraid," he adds, crossing it out.
"Finally," he reads, "Say, 'That seems pretty senseless, but whatever.'"
"That seems pretty senseless," he says with a shrug, "but ... whatever." Putting the notepad away, he marches on with a sense of accomplishment.
List-making, that bureaucratic passion, has been a part of popular film culture at least since 1924, the year the New York Times published its first 10 Best selection (does anybody remember In Hollywood with Potash and Perlmutter?), but perhaps never so pervasively as in recent years, when cover stories about the "50 most popular" or "100 greatest videos" or "25 most beloved films of all time" appear with increasing frequency in the popular press. Rather than promote discussion, however, the current barrage of list-making and cataloging serves a very different purpose, encouraging a popular view of movies as a homogeneous medium judged solely by the demands of the marketplace.
This commodification of the cinematic past reached new extremes this summer with the unveiling of the American Film Institute's list of the "100 greatest American movies," a shameless promotional tie-in with Blockbuster Video and CBS that had more to do with pushing videos and balancing the AFI's budget than with film history. My complaint is not with the AFI's list, predictably bland as it was, but with the uncritical response with which it was met by most major news sources. Though neither the voting process nor the selection criteria were ever explained, the AFI's list was welcomed almost without question. (I found it ironic that many of the papers that aided the AFI's self-promotion were more skeptical about the Modern Library's selection of the best English-language novels of the century a few weeks later, even though the latter organization was far more forthcoming about the voting process. Maybe they should have produced a TV special with Brooke Shields and Cher discussing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and U.S.A.).
I have made my futile objections to the tradition of the year-end 10-best list many times before in these pages, so this year I'll keep my grumbling to a minimum. The following list of the high points from the last 12 months of moviegoing is necessarily incomplete, and many films that are likely to appear on other lists are absent, some because I haven't seen them yet (I'm still hoping to find time for Elizabeth and A Bug's Life, and my overloaded shelf of unwatched videos still holds The Spanish Prisoner, Afterglow, The Apostle, Love and Death on Long Island, Underground and The Opposite of Sex, all of which have been highly recommended), some that I found disappointing despite the lavish praise they received elsewhere (Pleasantville, The Truman Show) and at least one title that I am conspicuously alone in disliking (Saving Private Ryan). There is also the usual amount of confusion over what constitutes a 1998 release, made more noticeable this year by the increasing importance of cable and video in premiering films. (Two of the films mentioned below appeared on HBO, and another had a widely publicized screening on Showtime before its theatrical run.)
There were few films in the last year that I enjoyed quite as much as Jacques Demy's 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort, revived and restored by Demy's widow, Agnes Varda, and given a single underpublicized screening at the St. Louis International Film festival this fall. Ordinarily I'd have no problem putting this on the year's "best" list, but because the film is scheduled to open in January, I'll give it special premature status as one of 1999's best films.
I'm also not sure how to classify straight-to-video revivals, even though there was no cinematic event in theaters quite as significant as the long-awaited video premiere of Feuillade's Les Vampires (Water Bearer Video) and no new discovery quite as startling as that of Seijun Suzuki's extraordinary 1967 gangster film Branded to Kill (Public Media).
Having made those exceptions, my favorite cinematic experiences in 1998 (in no discernible order) were:
Spike Lee's Four Little Girls: A director who's no stranger to hyperbole matures to make an intimate, heartfelt film about history. (Lee's film had little competition as the year's best documentary, though high marks also go to Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart and, with reservations, Wild Man Blues.)
Adrian Lyne's Lolita: As much for preserving Nabokov's ability to shock as for Jeremy Irons' performance.
Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine: I'm not sure I'd agree with Richard Byrne's claim that it's the best movie about rock music, but it's certainly not like any other movie I've seen lately. Haynes' combines three unpromising themes -- rock romanticism, gay nostalgia and gossipy roman-a-clef -- and comes up with ... the great lost Ken Russell science-fiction musical.
Warren Beatty's Bulworth: The most savage and necessary political satire since The Candidate, guaranteed to infuriate those who most need to hear its message. Compared to Beatty's film, Primary Colors is a tame apology.
Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters: A dreamlike elegy for lost youth and Hollywood glamour made genuinely tragic by the depth of Ian McKellen's performance.
Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski. A deliriously stoned crime movie that relates to Altman's The Long Goodbye the way Altman's film did to The Big Sleep, with razor-sharp dialogue and a flawless John Goodman performance.
And finally (do I dare?):
Peter and Bobby Farrelly's There's Something About Mary ... if for nothing else but all the times this year that people have started conversations with "I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I went to see There's Something About Mary."
Also: Celebrity, Out of Sight, Mulan, Jackie Chan's Who Am I?, John Carpenter's Vampires, What Dreams May Come, Shattered Image, Wild Things, Antz, The Mask of Zorro, Deconstructing Harry.
Worth seeing: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jane Austen's Mafia!, Small Soldiers, The Kingdom II, I Married a Strange Person, The Wind in the Willows (released on video as Mr. Toad's Wild Ride), Forgotten Silver, The Newton Boys, The Borrowers, He Got Game and Primary Colors (especially for Kathy Bates).
Every year, as the 10-best-list deadline ticks down, I mutter disconsolately that finding more than a handful of films to cite will prove impossible, so dismal and crapulent are the candidates in this, the worst of all possible moviegoing times. But this year, when I belatedly scrambled to re-examine those contenders with some small degree of seriousness and rigor, I was stunned to find that narrowing the field to 10 was the actual problem: In 1998, I saw about 25 movies that deserve some thoughtful consideration, and there are another dozen worthies I've yet to see. Because I limit the number of movies I attend in a year to 100 or so -- largely by ignoring Hollywood's market-driven blockbusters and genre programmers such as Armageddon and The Waterboy -- you could argue that such a high percentage of allegedly meritorious films is clear evidence not of cinema's escalating artistic quality but of my declining critical standards. Perhaps so, but, if anything, I've grown less tolerant of by-the-numbers filmmaking in recent years, becoming more difficult to surprise and much harder to please.
What explains the seeming generosity of my assessment are volume and variety. With the return of Landmark Theatres to the area, St. Louis now has 10 screens devoted to first-run art in the Plaza Frontenac, Tivoli and Hi-Pointe. Although the same film often appears at two of those theaters -- or even on multiple screens at the same theater -- the healthy competition between Landmark's Plaza Frontenac and the sister houses owned by Joe Edwards has ensured that almost every major art film distributed in the U.S. will play St. Louis. And those that fail to appear on their screens will almost inevitably find a home in Webster University's ambitious, wide-ranging film series or as part of the ever-expanding St. Louis International Film Festival (or the St. Louis International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival or the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival or Nebula Communications' St. Louis Black Film Festival). We still see far too few foreign works -- because of the distributors' cowardice as much as the exhibitors' -- but the American-independent scene continues to thrive, supported by adventuresome mini-studios, and even mainstream Hollywood occasionally indulges the more outrageous artistic whims of its proven talent.
That said, 1998 lacked an uncontested masterpiece -- its many gems all had flaws, large and small, such as the cringe-inducing framing sequence of Saving Private Ryan or the ill-conceived conclusion of Henry Fool. But it was a year of surprising and pleasing fecundity, including such welcome restorations as Orson Welles' Touch of Evil and Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. Once more acknowledging the arbitrary nature of this enterprise -- I've not seen, for example, Life Is Beautiful, The Eel, Slam, Lolita, Central Station, Your Friends and Neighbors, Celebrity, Shakespeare in Love, A Simple Plan, The Thin Red Line, A Civil Action, Rushmore or Fireworks -- here are my highly personal, admittedly idiosyncratic picks for 1998's 10 best, in roughly descending order of preference:
Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan
Todd Solondz's Happiness
Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski
Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale
Peter Weir's The Truman Show
Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Inheritors
Chris Eyre's Smoke Signals
Warren Beatty's Bulworth
George Miller's Babe: Pig in the City
Don Roos' The Opposite of Sex
Just missing the cut were Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters and Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, followed by The General, The Celebration, Out of Sight, My Name Is Joe, Mrs. Dalloway, The Winter Guest, Taste of Cherry, The Cruise, The Big One, I'm Losing You and, yes, There's Something About Mary.
In 1998 the Spanish Inquisition came back to possess and paralyze the U.S. government. As the year ends, England and the U.S.A. are bombing Iraq. In summer 1998, St. Louis gloried in Mark Mc-Gwire's generosity and in his home-run record, which brought the Cardinals back from much-deserved demise. In January 1999, Pope John Paul II will visit St. Louis, a great honor to the city. Perhaps the Holy See knows that the Vatican Museums sent an advance team to the St. Louis Art Museum: the disappointing Angels from the Vatican. Though a particular painting of an angel might be mediocre, we certainly need all the angels we can get. They help us glimpse the divine amidst the general madness. Great filmmakers, like other great artists, are angels. Our English word comes from the Greek angelos: "messenger."
When Gertrude Stein realized that she wanted to become a writer, she wrote, "May I join that choir invisible of those immortal dead who live again." Lawrence Ferlinghetti described the poet as a high-wire acrobat who leaps from truth to that still higher place where beauty lies. William Gass asked people to think of the blank page -- and, by extension, the blank canvas, the blank film. The artist's job is to lie down in the blankness, as if it were clean snow, and make the imprint of an angel.
If we are lucky, most of our angelic images have come from immortal religious paintings from Western Europe, India or some other cosmology and not from Disney or Hallmark. The Bible gave text and story, but painters made unforgettable images of Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would bear a son; they also showed an angel substituting a ram for Isaac, the beloved son whom God asked Abraham to kill up on the mountain.
The Bible's angels aren't cute little cherubim but grownups entrusted with God's serious work: to drive Adam and Eve from Eden; to announce Jesus' coming; and to blow the "last trumpet" to signal the world's end. Like the fierce Hittite angel in the Angels from the Vatican exhibit, major angels aren't just decorative. They deliver God's messages and do his bidding. We recognize them as "direct from the source." Great artists become angels because the spirit flows through them. A friend asked George Handel how his composition of The Messiah was going. He replied, tears in his eyes, "I have looked upon the face of God."
Cinematic angels follow not only their own traditions but those of literary, musical and visual arts through the ages. We know now from scientific study of the human brain that visual images have more immediate impact than words. We also know that they are most powerful side-by-side or -- as in film -- intertwined. Seeing Orthodox religious paintings in Russia was a revelation. Scrolls with biblical texts float above biblical scenes, while out of angels' mouths roll scrolls of words. The words are explicit, though -- as in Western painting -- the text is implicit and supposedly known to the viewer. Human creativity is such a glorious consolation. People have found so many ways to be messengers with word and image. This last century has witnessed a new category of artistic angel: the filmmaker.
These 10 films of 1998 bear messages of great importance; they show the imprints of angels.
In chronological order of St. Louis exhibition, the first celestial film was Kundun, Martin Scorsese's immortal biography of the current Dalai Lama. Robert Duvall's The Apostle combined a great acting performance with a historic portrait of American culture. Though their sense of humor is devilish, Ethan and Joel Coen showed themselves angelic cinemagicians once again in The Big Lebowski. David Mamet definitely sees human beings' dark sides, but he writes and directs like an angel. The Spanish Prisoner played in St. Louis for months, probably because so many wanted to see it a second time.
After a flirtation with Hollywood commercialism (Green Card), Peter Weir once again took on angelic wings in The Truman Show. A character played by Jim Carrey discovers that his "life" has more to do with TV than with life. Angels know how to tell us truths we might otherwise avoid.
With its relentless opening sequence of the D-Day landing, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan creates fresh images of war's horror. This is a film for all time -- and a great, needed expression of gratitude to the World War II generation. Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful shows the war through Italian eyes. This hilariously funny film also gives the sharpest sense to date of Auschwitz's reality. A love story in every sense, Life Is Beautiful is a divine message that love will win out over hate, that the darkness cannot overcome the light.
Back on the theme of television and "life," Gary Ross' Pleasantville is a brilliant study in color and black-and-white. Life in a '50s sitcom looks so simple, but is it life? The title of Happiness also drips with irony. With multiple plots centering on one family, Todd Solondz's film lays bare pathology that lurks behind fronts of normality and success, including pedophilia. How could such a painful film be celestial? Angels can bear bad news about our human brokenness -- and in ways that we can and must hear.
Finally, on a note of joy, comes the must-see film of 1998's holiday season: Shakespeare in Love. This romp finds young Shakespeare in 1597 (Joseph Fiennes) writing a play that becomes another because he has met his Juliet/Viola/true love (Gwyneth Paltrow). Actors, wit, London, poetry, theater: This film is a chorus of angels.
Also of note this year were The Boxer, Wag the Dog, Afterglow, Oscar and Lucinda, The Borrowers, Ma Vie En Rose, Mrs. Dalloway, Men with Guns, The Gingerbread Man, Smoke Signals, Insomnia and The Inheritors. Films I missed so far include Velvet Goldmine and Gods and Monsters. A cheery note this year were some very entertaining comedies, including The Object of My Affection; Six Days, Seven Nights; and Next Stop Wonderland. Nor should we forget that swashbuckling delight The Mask of Zorro.
Thank you, filmmakers, for another year -- especially you angels who, in various ways, break through the ordinariness. When you address us, we know we must pay attention, however excruciating or ecstatic the message. We recognize that, on the blank film/screen, you have made the imprint of an angel.